By Bill Foley
When Butte Central principal J.P. Williams looks at Rileigh McGree, he sees a little bit of Jim Valvano.
Knowns as “Jimmy V,” Valvano was the national championship-winning college basketball coach who inspired millions with his strength while fighting cancer. His “Never Give Up” speech at the ESPY Awards in 1993 is the stuff of legends.
McGree, a senior at Butte Central, overcame a nasty knee injury to become a three-time state champion last May. In front of a packed BC Rotunda Tuesday afternoon, McGree officially signed an NCAA National Letter of Intent to compete for the University of Montana track team.
She verbally committed to the Grizzlies in September. She made that commitment official on Tuesday.
“She never game up, like Jimmy V,” Williams said. “She never, never, never, never, never gave up. She worked through everything and made the classroom the priority. The field took care of itself.”
McGree, BC’s homecoming queen and a member of the National Honor Society, signed her Letter of Intent while sitting between her parents, Lisa and Dan. Her sister Whitney and fiancé Kaemen Richards stood behind.
Sisters Rachael and Lindsey were out of town going to school. All four McGree sisters were stars for the Butte Central track team. Rachael and Lindsey competed for Grizzly rival Montana State before career choices took them from the program.
Rachael is attending law school in San Diego, while Lindsay is in the MSU nursing program.
Rileigh McGree said her sisters put family before rivalry when they learned of their youngest sister’s intentions.
“My sisters are really supportive, even though they’re Cats themselves,” she said. “As soon as I told them I’m going to commit, they were like, ‘We’re so excited to get our Griz gear.’ They were so excited for me.
“I’m sure we’ll have a little bit of a rivalry going, but they were really supportive.”
For the youngest of the four McGree sisters, Tuesday was a day that was a long time coming.
“I’ve dreamt about being a college athlete since I was 6 years old,” Rileigh McGree said. “I think I was 6 years old when I did my first track meet, and I think I fell in love. I’ve been thinking about this moment forever.”
After visiting the campus, she immediately decided Grizzly life was for her.
“Right when I got home, I told my dad, ‘There is no doubt in my mind that is where I am going to go,’” she said. “It just felt like a perfect fit. I just knew.”
Rileigh McGree, who is leaning toward becoming a multi-sport athlete on the Grizzly team, had a promising freshman season for the Maroons. She placed sixth in the 300-meter hurdles as the Class A State meet.
During the offseason before her sophomore season, though, McGree suffered a right knee injury that required surgery and an extensive rehabilitation. She would have missed the sophomore season had it not been canceled by COVID-19.
As a junior, you would have never known McGree had an issue.
She won the long jump, 300 hurdles and 100 hurdles at the State meet in Laurel. Her leap of 17 feet, 8 ¾ inches kept alive the “McGree Streak” in the long jump. It has been since 2015 that a girl who is not a daughter of Lisa and Dan McGree won the Class A long jump title.
Rachael McGree won it in 2016 and 2017, and Lindsay followed with titles in 2018 and 2019.
As she looks to extend that streak, Rileigh McGree is once again recovering from a knee surgery. Her same knee needed to be fixed, and this time her meniscus was removed.
The injury cut her senior volleyball season to just one game.
At the urging of her sisters, Rileigh called Grizzly assistant coach Lindsey Hall to tell the Grizzlies about her injury and impeding surgery.
“They didn’t hesitate,” said Dan McGree, who is the head track coach at Butte Central. “They said, ‘We want to get you here.’ What a school. I’ll always be a Griz fan.”
This surgery was not as major as the first one. After two weeks, McGree is already walking around, showing no signs of an injury.
Still, it was knee surgery, and it will be an obstacle to overcome before McGree closes her high school career at the Class A State meet in May.
“I’m not going to miss this track season,” McGree said. “It’s going to be a little bit of a battle coming back after an injury. It’s definitely not something you want to happen before your senior season, but I think it’s just going to make the end that much sweeter.”
Tuesday was already sweet for McGree’s friends, family, classmates and educators.
“We know she’s worked extremely hard over the last three years,” Williams said. “This is a special day.”